Friday 26 January 2018

The Ten Best First Films (10) - Longtime cinephile and Asian film aficionado John Snadden explores some byways

What an enjoyable task Geoff Gardner set for us earlier this month. I thought compiling a list of ten outstanding debut feature films from directors would be a walk-in-the-park – until I actually started thinking about it. The titles which readily came to mind were from my favourite film-makers but hardly any were first features. What I did notice was many of these movies were actually second features: Sam Peckinpah's Ride the High Country, Kathryn Bigelow's Blue Steel and Fred Schepisi's The Chant of Jimmy name a few.

As for Cantonese language movies, the field from the early 1980s was pure thoroughbred and included Tsui Hark's The Butterfly Murders, Yuen Kwai's Ninja in the Dragon's Den and Ching Siu-Tung's Duel to the Death

Australian premiere at MFF, 1980, ...ahem
Only a photo finish would decide the winner. Of the more recent Johnnie To/Milkyway Image productions, I couldn't include the gangster farce Too Many Ways To Be No.1 or the crime thriller Expect the Unexpected - two gems of late 1990s Hong Kong cinema. Again, both pics were second features for their directors.

But the following films certainly made an enormous impression on me when I first watched them. Not all were seen on the big screen, and two were viewed via a 1990's icon – the laser disc player. 

Closely Watched Trains
Closely Watched Trains (1965)
I first saw this film on SBS-TV during the 1980s, and was amazed that an initial feature film directing effort could be so incredibly good. It was a slyly observant and very funny depiction of small town social mores. The film stars Vaclav Necktar as Milos, a young Czechoslovakian railway worker who is discovering the temptations and responsibilities of burgeoning adulthood – all of this and World War 2! At 28, Czech director Jiri Menzel wasn't much older than the hapless Milos when he made Closely Watched Trains. It was a major film-making feat which was rewarded by the movie winning an Oscar for Best Foreign Film in 1968. In anyone's language, this film is a true cinema classic.

Take the Money and Run
Take the Money and Run (1969) 
If ever there was a film which could bear repeat screenings – this is the one! It's Woody Allen's first as a director and, IMO, still his best movie. It's just so out of left field and so cleverly done. It's an hilarious piss-take on the media and celebrity and in which director/star Allen hardly puts a foot wrong as America's Most Wanted (and unlikeliest) criminal. One of my favourite moments has his wife questioning his dress sense on the morning of a bank robbery.

Harlan County USA (1976)
The debut feature from documentary film-maker Barbara Kopple follows a violent and divisive industrial dispute between coal workers and mine owners in Kentucky during the mid-1970s. The film's focus on detail and the fluctuating fortunes of both sides was a real eye-opener to me. After that film, I became much more interested in documentaries and found the works of Nick Broomfield, Dennis O'Rourke, Robert Connolly/Robin Anderson etc...often to be outstanding, and usually under-valued by the general public and film exhibitors.

Sylvia Chang, The Secret
The Secret (1979)
Is it a ghost story? Is it a murder mystery? First time director Ann Hui teases and beguiles the audience with this intelligent and entertaining tale set in contemporary Hong Kong and Macao. Even at this early stage, her deceptively simple visual style is more than apparent. Cineastes will easily spot an ongoing reference to Nic Roeg's evocative thriller, Don't Look Now.   
Thief  (1981)
I have fond memories of first seeing this Michael Mann film on its original release  in 1981 at a dingy Hoyts theatre in the South Eastern suburbs of Melbourne. But time stood still as this cinema experience unspooled in front of me. Nihilism and criminality have never looked more stark or appealing as displayed so viscerally and brilliantly in the opening neon and rain drenched robbery sequence. It was the cinema of Walter Hill and William Friedkin combined. The two leads James Caan and Tuesday Weld were in top form, and who could forget Robert Prosky as the underworld fixer who sets up the ultimate tragedy of this ground breaking American noir thriller.

Duel to the Death  (1983)
Is a film which I first watched on laser disc in the early 1990s, and a long time after discovering Hong Kong director Ching Siu-Tung's great movies (A Chinese Ghost Story and its sequels, Swordsman 2, Wonder Seven). Duel to the Death was a major budget Golden Harvest pic which is steeped in the mythology of martial-arts cinema, and details a classic series of martial-arts bouts between Chinese and Japanese protagonists. There are some great outdoor action sequences and the location, choreography and bloodshed of the epic closing duel is still particularly impressive today.

Roger and Me  (1989)
US film-maker Michael Moore has spent the last nearly three decades documenting the weird and the wonderful of America's social and political life.  It all began in 1989, when a visit to his family in Flint, Michigan revealed most of his siblings and friends had lost their jobs after the closure of a General Motors factory. The film follows Moore's attempts to speak with corporate supremo, Roger Smith, and find out why Michigan had been targeted for lay-offs. The bulk of the movie is frustratingly funny as GM lackeys and managers duck for cover whenever Moore is in the building. Director Moore balances this doco nicely with, amongst others, interviews of Michigan's James Bond and the rabbit woman, the latter whose antics might be a bit much for the faint hearted.

Andy Lau, Wu Chien Lien, A Moment of Romance
A Moment of Romance  (1990)
Is one of my all-time favourite Cantonese movies, and was the first feature from cinematographer turned director, Benny Chan. The romance of the title takes place amidst the brutal tribalism of Hong Kong's triad gangs and has Wah Dee (Andy Lau), a small-time gangster, falling for Jo-Jo (Wu Chien Lien), an only child from a wealthy family. Well-acted and with a strong storyline the film eventually leads to a most striking finale on a HK freeway in the early light of day. Benny Chan went on to become one of Hong Kong's best and busiest film-makers (Big Bullet, Shaolin, Call of Heroes).

Queen of Temple Street  (1990)
I do know this was director Lawrence Ah-Mon's second feature but, as far as I'm concerned, Queen of Temple Street is a masterpiece of modern Cantonese cinema. Big Sis Wah (Sylvia Chang) is the mama-san of a downmarket Temple Street brothel in Kowloon, and whose life is at a crossroad, personally and professionally. Sylvia Chang has never been better and, then newcomer, Rain Lau as her rebellious daughter is a force of nature determined to repeat all the same mistakes her mother had made. The realism of this seedy milieu and the beautifully scripted drama are hard to forget. But, for me, the Canto film gods had the last laugh as I actually own a 35 mm print of this film – which is missing one reel(!).

Daze Raper  (1995)

I watched this movie on laser disc in the late 1990s. It was never released theatrically in Australia. Hong Kong film-maker Wilson Yip began his career with this low budget exploitation pic based on a mini crime wave in Hong Kong in 1995. Hardly ever does a film successfully capture the twisted thinking behind a psychopath's actions. Canto star Bobby Au-Yeung is terrific as a seriously troubled prison guard. Yip went on to become one of HK's finest film-makers who is currently best known for his Ip Man movies with Donnie Yen.

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